Washington, 12 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton told a group of students from the former Soviet Union that freedom is an extraordinary blessing, and that democracy is a gift which can never be taken for granted.
Clinton made the comment Monday in Washington during a ceremony at the White House to honor 88 students from the former Soviet Union who are completing a year's study in the U.S. on a government-sponsored exchange program.
Called Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX), the project offers high school students from the former USSR an opportunity to spend a year in the U.S. living with American families while attending American high schools. The program is sponsored by the United States Information Agency (USIA) and funded by Congress.
The students in the program come from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. According to USIA officials, the program's goal is to give future political, civic and business leaders of these countries a chance to experience first-hand how a democratic society, a market economy and community-based initiatives work.
The students are selected through a merit-based competition, focusing on their abilities in the English language, their academic performance and personal qualities such as adaptability, friendliness and openness. The annual program was started in 1993.
USIA officials say students are often recommended by teachers or leaders in their communities. The program receives thousands of applications each year, but only approximately 1 in 30 of the initial applicants are ultimately selected.
Clinton said she believes such exchange programs yield "immeasurable rewards" for all of the countries involved, including the United States.
Said Clinton to the students: "As you help lead your own countries, as you make contributions to the quality of life of your own people, also reach across the boundaries of your countries to join hands with like-minded people across the world. We should never forget how much we can learn from one another, and how important friendships and personal relationships are in building a better world for all of our people."
Clinton said she was "thrilled" to have had an opportunity to speak with several former FLEX students in Uzbekistan when she visited there last November during her tour through Central Asia. She said the students told her how profoundly the exchange program had affected their lives.
Similar feelings were echoed by many of the students at the White House ceremony on Monday as many stood up to tell Clinton and other officials -- including most of the ambassadors from the participating countries to the U.S. -- what the experience had taught them.
Shurat Sadyrov, a student from Kazakhstan, said the exchange had been "the greatest year of my life."
Sadyrov said one of the most important lessons he had learned from the exchange program was that in a democracy, a system of checks and balances on all of the powers of government, as well as a document outlining citizens' basic rights -- such as the Bill of Rights -- are very important for building a democratic society.
He also said he enjoyed giving presentations on democracy in his school's history class, and talking about the issue with fellow students, teachers and his host family.
But Sadyrov added that the program also gave him a chance to tell Americans about Kazakhstan.
Said Sadyrov: "Today there are many students at Concord High [School] in California, and people in my community who now know the culture of my country, our traditions, our values. And a lot of them have told me they are interested in visiting my country."
Sadyrov said as a result of the exchange program, he has now set new goals for himself.
Said Sadyrov: "I want to go back to Kazakhstan and to teach people over there how democracy and freedom are important for us. I want to be a politician in the future, so I can inspire and lead people toward real democracy and freedom."
Another student, Akmaral Omarova, also from Kazakhstan, told RFE/RL that the exchange program had enabled her to see democracy in action, and not just read about it in a textbook.
Said Omarova, "I have understood how democracy really works and how the society here in America functions. So when I go back to my country, I will be able to tell people there from my own experience, what it was like."
Omarova said she learned that the most important principle of democracy is freedom.
Omarova explained: "Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and so forth. That is, I think, the most important thing that we need to really start in Kazakhstan. Because it is not a pure democracy at all there, and we don't have such freedom of speech like here. So, that is the one thing that I really want to....tell people about [in Kazakhstan]."
Anton Solovyov from the city of Yekaterinsburg in Russia also told RFE/RL that he learned valuable lessons about the way democratic principles affect society.
He said he learned many things in school about the ways cities are run and how citizens organize themselves to make changes in the government. He added he was also amazed at how openly, and sometimes critically, people spoke about the government, and how individuals in America believe they have the power to make a difference.
Said Solovyov: "I really think that with the experience and knowledge I've gained from this program....I really can do something to change my home city, my community, my family, and the people I'm around. And for that I'm grateful."